Five possible landing spots for NAPA's NASCAR sponsorship in 2014
With a press release and a Facebook posting, NAPA Auto Parts changed the NASCAR landscape by announcing the end of their decade plus relationship with Michael Waltrip. The announcement set off a late silly season scramble as teams line up to take numbers to pitch the parts manufacturer on why they are the perfect place for NAPA to be in NASCAR. Where will NAPA be in 2014? There are a number of intriguing possibilities.
NAPA first joined up with Waltrip in 2001 when the driver began his full time run with Dale Earnhardt Inc. Unlike many sponsors, NAPA wasn't focused on Waltrip's on-track performance; he'd never won a race going into that 2001 season. The auto parts giant instead saw Waltrip's personality as the perfect way to enter stock car racing. Michael won a handful of races with NAPA on the hood (all at restrictor plate tracks). More importantly, Waltrip became the center of NAPA's marketing push. His antics were at the heart of the “NAPA Know How” commercials even after Waltrip retired from full time competition on the track.
So where does NAPA go from here? If they intend to continue full-year sponsorship at the Sprint Cup level they will need to move quickly. After all, it's late in the 2013 season. Many of the best drivers are already locked up for 2014 and beyond. The company also hasn't shown any interest in switching drivers year after year- they stuck with Waltrip in the past despite the 2007 jet fuel scandal at Daytona and declining results on the track. As a result, the next NAPA driver has to be someone that the company is comfortable with hitching their wagon to for years to come.
In looking at the drivers and teams that may be possible NAPA destinations, it's important to note a few items. First, there are still a handful of silly season moves yet to be determined. As of today, a number of drivers have yet to sign on the dotted line for next season and in most cases sponsorship is the reason why. Second, having a sponsor step up with a full season at this date might make it possible for a team to add a third or fourth car to their operation. Finally, while NAPA aligned itself with a Toyota team in MWR in the past, it's likely the company will be looking for a domestic manufacturer for a clean start. So with that being said, let's take a look into the crystal ball and see where NAPA might find itself in 2014.
Driver: Trevor Bayne
Team: #6 for Roush Fenway Racing
Why he makes sense: NAPA's announcement of the change specifically called out the company's belief in fair play. The clean-cut Bayne provides exactly the kind of image NAPA wants to project in the wake of the Waltrip scandal. He's also essentially a clean slate with no prior major sponsorship. NAPA can build a new marketing campaign around the young driver. Bayne also has a Daytona 500 victory to his credit, something few other candidates can offer.
Why NAPA should look elsewhere: Aside from that Daytona 500 win, Bayne has been a non-factor at the Sprint Cup level. In fact, the entire Roush Fenway team has been a step behind the other major teams. Bayne isn't a sure thing as a Sprint Cup driver and NAPA doesn't want to be in the position of having to start over a year or so from now if Bayne can't cut it on the track.
Driver: Austin Dillon
Team: #3 for Richard Childress Racing
Why he makes sense: In returning the #3 to the track next season, Dillon will be under a bright spotlight all season long. A sponsor who joins that effort will gain an incredible amount of exposure. Moreover, Dillon seems to be the real deal. He won a truck series championship last year and is in contention for the Nationwide title this year. Like Bayne, he's a young driver with virtually no prior sponsor linkage that NAPA would have to overcome. RCR may already have cobbled together a handful of sponsors for 2014 but they would gladly shift those over to Ryan Newman should NAPA be willing to commit a full season, multi-year contract.
Why NAPA should look elsewhere: Any young driver comes with a significant risk of failure to compete on the Sprint Cup level. The harsh media spotlight will only increase the pressure on Dillon. A significant number of fans are already skeptical about Dillon driving the #3 Earnhardt Sr. made famous; if he struggles, the media exposure NAPA has with the deal will ensure the company is forever linked with Dillon's failure.
Driver: David Ragan
Team: #34, Front Row Motorsports
Why he makes sense: NAPA has never spent its NASCAR dollars on the Sprint Cup superteams. Instead, they've found better value in being the sole sponsor for a mid-level team all season long. They may well see the same kind of value in Ragan. The driver is still fairly young and has the kind of personality that NAPA can market. He's also experienced enough to ensure the team isn't going to go over the cliff in making rookie mistakes. NAPA's goal in sponsoring a car is selling auto parts and Ragan can be a cost-effective way to help them do that.
Why NAPA should look elsewhere: While the results are better than they were last year, Front Row is still a bottom-tier team. They simply do not have the speed to run with NASCAR's average teams, much less the sport's elite. NAPA got a taste the past two years of seeing their car run well. They likely wouldn't be happy to take a step backwards in that respect and without question FRM is a step back from MWR on the track.
Driver: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
Why he makes sense: Earnhardt is the perfect combination of pitchman and track performance for the NAPA contract. He'll run in the top ten plenty of times over the course of a season and be in contention for a race or two. He also is an experienced pitchman who's spent much of the past few years pitching products not even on his car (Wrangler jeans, Nationwide insurance, etc.). The company is familiar with Earnhardt from Waltrip's days at DEI. They could also be a part of the team without needing to commit to a full season of sponsorship given the existing deal with the National Guard.
Why NAPA should look elsewhere: As noted before, NAPA isn't a big fan of change. With Earnhardt approaching 40, his best days are likely behind him. NAPA might well be able to follow their previous pattern and eventually move to an Earnhardt driver at JR Motorsports. But why sign up with someone whose star is fading when so many up and coming drivers are available?
Driver: Sam Hornish
Team: #12, Penske Racing
Why he makes sense: His first shot at the Sprint Cup level didn't go so well, but Sam Hornish has shown over this past Nationwide season that he's ready to try it again. He's leading laps and running up front against the entire Nationwide field (plus several Sprint Cup regulars) on a weekly basis. He's also bringing the car home in one piece, something he struggled with before. NAPA would also likely love a partnership with Penske given the number of dealerships the Captain controls. It's the same reason why Shell-Pennzoil came over from RCR in 2011 despite having great success on track with Kevin Harvick at RCR.
Why NAPA should look elsewhere: Penske has long said that he's perfectly happy running a two car operation. He's had opportunities in the past to expand to three and has made zero effort to explore them. As a Fortune 400 member, it's not lack of resources holding the team back. Penske believes the operation is at its best as a two car entry and it would take a fairly significant check from NAPA to change his mind. It's probably not worth the effort on NAPA's part- particularly for such a hot and cold driver.